Tired of Waiting

Robyn Hitchcock, as much a SXSW perennial as barbecue at the IronWorks or free beer at an afternoon party, showed up to play with the re-formed Soft Boys.
John Anderson

South by Southwest, now as gangly and awkward as any 15-year-old, doesn't take place in Austin--not really, not anymore. The music conference--which has become the climax (or anticlimax) of a film festival that draws the likes of Ann Richards, Sissy Spacek, Batman Beyond creator Paul Dini, two-thirds of Larry Sanders' crank geniuses (Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor), and three-thirds of the Indie(Co)Dependent Posse (Tarantino, Linklater, and Rodriguez)--unfolds in an alternate universe. It's a place where yesterday's heroes and tomorrow's legends stand on the street corners, gawked at by passers-by; last Friday afternoon, Ray Davies and David Byrne stood at the same street corner, at Sixth and Congress Avenue, waiting to head in different directions, as usual. It's a place where people line up for hours to catch a whiff of Robyn Hitchcock and the reformed Soft Boys, who now sound like a corroded cover band playing catch-up with its own misunderstood and underappreciated history. It's a place where the BellRays, the Morells, The New Pornographers, El Paso's Universal Recovered, Pete Yorn, Tiffany Anders, The Shins, the White Stripes, and several hundred other bands you've never heard of (yet, of course) draw the laser-beam buzz for a half hour or so; where the Black Crowes and The Cult and Ike Turner and Dave Wakeling and other has-beens and never-should-have-beens reclaim moribund fame; and where Sharon Osbourne, wife of Ozzy, borrows the spotlight her husband's been hogging too long.

But more than anything else, SXSW is where the music industry skulks out from the shadows and stands in the sunlight, revealing all the imperfections it prefers to keep hidden the rest of the year. Louis Black, editor of the weekly Austin Chronicle and cofounder of SXSW, constantly harangues writers who are, in his estimation, critical of the conference--those of us who claim our free admittance badges worth hundreds of bucks, only to return by week's end to the safety of our homes and report back with damning, dismissive missives from the front. But Black really shouldn't take personally any criticism steaming forth post-conference: The problem has never been SXSW, but the music industry itself, which has become so thin-skinned it falls apart in a spring rain shower. SXSW just happens to be one of the few--if only--times each year the industry converges in a single place, and the confab serves merely to magnify the problems with the music business, which hasn't actually been about music since: a) the death of Kurt Cobain, b) the death of John Lennon, or c) the death of Beethoven. Take your pick.

For four days each year, Austin becomes the center of the musical universe; from sun up to sun up, bars from Sixth Street to South Congress to Guadalupe resonate and rumble with, for the most part, bands that sound like the Stooges turned up and inside-out. That's the fun part--the endless Swedish loop of invite-only parties, the high times at the dope High Times bash, and the free and free-flowing Shiner that renders Austin the world's biggest kegger this side of South Padre come spring break; the endless echo of bands playing morningnoonnight in clubs, the Mexican restaurants, the honky-tonks, the Austin Convention Center, some dude's East Austin back yard; and the endless chatter of con-goers debating the merits of Mike Watt and Mogwai, like Star Trek fans arguing Kirk vs. Picard. Amid the construction and destruction that has rendered Austin the impassable Baghdad of the South, you can, if only for a moment, still pretend Austin is the "live music capital of the world," even if, in reality, it's become Dallas with more scenery and traffic.

But the cheerful façade of SXSW--Davies' garrulous keynote address opened the conference Thursday morning with a self-deprecating grin--lasts only so long before the smile starts to look like an open wound. Byrne said it best Thursday afternoon, during his "SXSW Interview" with Chicago rock critic Greg Kot: The worst part of the music business is the middle--being caught between "success and failure, between fame and freedom." SXSW gives you the false impression that success and fame are within striking distance, that a handshake means a deal means a lifetime of fame and fortune; just ask Veruca Salt, once the sweethearts of SXSW, if that's really true. The conference-cum-music fest began in 1987 as a way of bringing local and regional bands to the attention of industry folk missing the hot and happening unfolding in the flyover; 15 cons later, it's become something of a dumping ground. Labels, big and small, showcase emerging talent in hopes of a little promo press (prediction: Pete Yorn, about to release Music For the Morning After on Sony Music, will emerge as this year's pick to hit), while everyone else pays big bucks to schlep from Georgia and Japan to sell a few discs from the merch stand, in hopes of making enough money to get back home. You can drown to death in the in-between.  

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The industry's in such a sorry state--the once-beloved Warner Bros. Records and its Time Warner subsidiaries, including Elektra Records and Atlantic Records, just announced it's laying off some 600 folks after its merger with AOL--that it's hard not to be dismissive and combative toward The Biz. "I was in People magazine, and I'm still busing tables at Stubb's," said Damnations TX singer-bassist Amy Boone during an underwhelming set by J. Mascis and Mike Watt (or was that Louis Black?) at Emo's. The Austin-based musician then turned and added, with a rueful grin, "Isn't there something wrong with that? I'm not complaining, really..." But who would begrudge her if she were?

After all, the Damnations' first and last album, Half Mad Moon, was released in 1998, and a new one has been finished (all that's left is the mastering) for a long while. Yet there is no release date in sight, because Sire Records (once so proud and mighty, home to Madonna and Talking Heads; now just one more cloud in an overcast sky) appears unwilling to let the band go, no matter how hard it begs for its liberation (Moses had an easier time getting the Jews out of Egypt). Monday night, during a break between sets at a dotcom party at, of all places, Stubb's barbecue joint, Damnations TX guitarist-songwriter Rob Bernard (a former Picket Line Coyote and a current member of Prescott Curlywolf) had mentioned that the band had hoped to hear something about the album's fate during SXSW, but no luck. They don't call it the festival of false hope for nothing. But even if the Damnations are freed from Seymour Stein's velvet shackles, the band will be reluctant--if not downright resistant--to link arms once more with any label, large or small. Even the true believers have lost faith--except for True Believer Alejandro Escovedo, who seems to pop up at every other gig during the long, lost weekend.

It's ironic, if not downright heartbreaking, that SXSW takes place in Austin, the hometown of so many talented musicians who now have barely a tangential relationship with The Biz. Kathy McCarty, the Glass Eye guitarist-singer-songwriter who last released an album (Dead Dog's Eyeball, featuring the songs of Daniel Johnston) seven years ago, has apparently gone into the Rock and Roll Witness Relocation Program. The only time she was seen during SXSW was Wednesday night, on the Austin Music Hall stage playing with a, ahem, supergroup called 86'ed, which featured the likes of Mike Hall (Wild Seeds), Escovedo, Steve Collier (Doctors' Mob), and other musicians who flowered (or deflowered) Austin's rock scene in the 1980s. When McCarty lit into Glass Eye's "Christine," cutting through the chitchat that renders the annual Austin Music Awards a cross between a homecoming bash and going-away party, it was hard not to choke back tears--of nostalgia, and of regret for a career stuck in the middle Byrne was talking about. After all, how does a musician succeed when she's never even given the chance to fail?

Or take Mark Rubin, whose Bad Livers are, for all intents and purposes, defunct. The multi-instrumentalist now manages Violins Etc. on North Lamar in Austin, selling instruments to others; his band is busted up (partner Danny Barnes now lives in the Pacific Northwest), leaving behind a legacy of remarkable music worshiped by the faithful handful. A few years ago, Rubin predicted that three out of every 10 musicians at that year's SXSW would be off the stage and out of the business sooner rather than later; "I had no idea it'd be four out of 10," he says, laughing. Now, he can be found at SXSW moderating a mental-health issues forum to a crowd of about 20, even though it's likely the most instructive and meaningful panel of the conference.

On Saturday afternoon, Rubin was sitting between Austin singer-songwriter Dale Watson, who spoke openly and eloquently of his many failed suicide attempts after the recent death of his fiancée, and University of North Texas' John Hipple, a psychotherapist who consults with performing artists ranging from a 17-year-old musician with performance anxiety to couples with marital troubles. Watson, who pulled himself out of his post-traumatic depression by going into therapy, referred to himself as a "guinea pig of this profession we call music"; he sipped a can of Dr Pepper but admitted to still taking the occasional drink. Hipple provided a thick handout, Taking Care of Yourself Personally & Professionally, that came with chapters titled "Staying Sane: Knowing Yourself" and "The Business of Making Music."

"Musicians need to get over those years of being the unappreciated genius," Rubin says later, after all the rock-and-roll tourists have finished their spring break. "All the musicians can do is their part, come up with something amazing, and if the business and the culture don't pick up on it, it's not the musicians' fault. I don't require the validation of strangers; it can't be about the money. But you can't be on that track and say you're making music for a living. I think, anyway."  

Maybe it's just easy to be cynical when you see hundreds of people lined up in the frigid dampness to hear The Cult or the Black Crowes, whose appearances at SXSW prove only that any dinosaur can be dug up and foisted off as "hip" to a crowd that really ought to know better. The Cult's appearance, at a party for Revolver magazine (and there were more people at Stubb's for the party than actually read the magazine), was one of those performances so mundane and mediocre people tended to praise it with an Ike Turner backhand: "Well, that wasn't half bad." No, it was entirely awful, from Ian Astbury's look (he was clad in an outfit from the Fire Island REI outlet) to the fact the band insisted on performing songs other than "She Sells Sanctuary," which they got around to about the time the light drizzle turned to a steady downpour of God's anguished tears. Little wonder the SXSW organizers were furious with Revolver for booking a band not invited to play the formal fest; there's no truth to the rumor that people are already lining up around Stubb's for Revolver's 2002 bash featuring Warrant and the Hoodoo Gurus.

But how can we, the outsiders, be so cynical when even weary veterans soldier on full of optimism, even glee? The Toadies, delayed by some 90 minutes, took the stage Saturday night-Sunday morning and thawed out the frozen with hits old and soon-to-be; it had to have been the first time in recorded rock history that an audience wanted to hear the new stuff instead of the old shit. Too bad, then, the soundman insisted on turning down the volume on a band that's waited seven years to introduce songs by saying, "This is from our new album, due out next week!" You wanted a holocaust; it sounded, in the end, like a bonfire. (The BellRays, playing at Room 710 across the street, received similarly shoddy treatment from the soundman; Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffey was so furious he accosted the guy running the board, then stormed out of the club. I should have stormed out of 710 around the time the White Stripes, otherwise known as the Jon Spencer Blues Excretion, started playing.)

Davies opened the conference by suggesting he should have delivered his keynote address at SXSW's end; he said he couldn't wait to hear what new thing lay out there waiting for him, and he would deliver on his promise to stick around till the bitter end (he departed for London on Sunday morning, after sitting in with at least two bands during the week). The Kinks' frontman talked about how his first official solo album is still on hold, nothing more than a batch of demos awaiting the outcome of a label takeover. Perhaps to remind people who he was, he even played snatches of his old songs: "Tired of Waiting," Low Budget," and "Nothing in This World Can Stop Me Worryin' Bout That Girl," the latter of which showed up on the Rushmore soundtrack in 1998.

Davies talked about expectations ("nobody seems to know what I should do"), about wanting to be considered a new artist bereft of back catalog and luggage full of hits and misses ("I'd like to make a record with the Kinks as though 'You Really Got Me' never happened"), and about how "music is under assault from all sides." He joked about reinventing himself as a rapper ("Rappin' MC Ray") or a teeny-pop artist or metal man ("WASP meets Suicidal Tendencies"), suggested he'd love to make an album without lyrics, and offered words of solace ("if we all wise up, we'll win out") and advice ("think of A&R people as meaningful input, just don't let them date your girlfriends"). But more than anything else, he seemed genuinely thrilled to be among so much music--one aspiring artist walking among hundreds more, waiting to see what exciting new thing lay around the corner.

"I want more people to tap their feet than tap a computer," he said. "But where do I fit in? I never have, I guess, so why start now?"

A couple of days later, John Hammond was saying nearly the same thing as he sat near the pool at a Holiday Inn, puffing on a smoke in the rare rays of sun. The 59-year-old bluesman, who began recording nearly four decades ago, was in town to play a few songs Saturday night at the Continental Club; he was showing off his just-released Wicked Grin, an album of Tom Waits covers produced by and featuring Waits himself. Hammond spoke of how this is going to be the album that proves right those who refused to write him off a long time ago. "I'm just glad there are still people who believe in me," he said Friday afternoon, and Saturday night he, along with a topnotch band that included Augie Meyers, converted even the heretics by finding the blues in Waits' songs (among them, "Heartattack and Vine," "Jockey Full of Bourbon," and "2:19") and drenching them in blood-reds.  

Maybe this was the Year of the Comeback--out with the new, in with the old. There was Dave Wakeling at the Rainbow Cattle Company on Friday night, skanking to that English Beat once more beneath neon beer signs that hang like Christmas-tree ornaments in this gay honky-tonk. Performing the old and beloved songs ("Tenderness," "Mirror in the Bathroom," "Ranking Full Stop," "Hands Off..She's Mine," and on and on) with a band of fetishistic imitators, Wakeling, still looking like he just walked out of a frat house and onto a stage, managed to pull off that rarest of feats: He had a SXSW crowd dancing and singing along, caught up in the familiar that still felt fresh. With a new Beat best-of forthcoming, Wakeling was his own best salesman; by night's end, people were walking out of the Rainbow sporting their just-bought Beat baseball T-shirts, available for cheap at the merch table. And with Mike Peters of the Alarm standing off to the side of the stage, it was 1983 all over again. "Say hello to my old friend George Gimarc," Peters insisted--there, just did, dude.

But right after that, you could walk two blocks to Antone's, where Ike Turner was setting up shop like it was 1951. Sitting at the keybs or strapping on the guitar, he banged through a set of standards (from "Rocket 88," the first "rock" song if not the last, to "Caledonia") while wearing a shirt with collars so big most people would consider them lapels. Turner looked like a pimp and gave it up like a pro, even if he did insult the crowd by showing up late and then greeting the throng by saying, "Hello, Houston!" By night's end, he'd brought on stage Los Lobos' Cesar Rosas and this year's Tina impersonator, but in the end needed no guest stars other than his own estimable history, which steadied a nervous hand that struck more than its share of bum notes (better those than wives). When Turner got around to introducing the band, nearly every one of them as "the son of a preacher," his old pal Angus Wynne, standing in the crowd with a "Democrats for Ike" button on his own lapel, glowed that "it's just like Sunday school--back to the beginning."

But how does that satisfy that desire within all music fans to be kicked in the ass by the undiscovered gem, the thrill of laying claim to that new New Thing before anyone else? It doesn't, which is why some 800 nobodies were also in town, hoping not to be signed, just to be noticed--to be wanted, even for the 30 minutes it took to plug in and freak out. You just want to leave SXSW with one band to talk about, to tell your friends about, to warn the world about. Universal Recovered, Restart Records labelmates of At The Drive-In and Belknap and Defacto, may not be that band day after tomorrow, but on Friday night, they were it--so loud they became a lifestyle, so cranked-up and messed-up they took a sonic shit on the Atomic Café and made it smell like a rose bed. When someone in the crowd yelled, "Louder! Faster!" guitarist Ralph Jasso (bearing a 'fro so big he seemed off-balance) couldn't believe his surely deaf ears. "Louder? Faster?" he responded, shocked because no such thing was actually possible. But he and bassist-singer Greg Sosa tried anyway, until the songs began sounding like a sustained roar--a solid slab of evil.

"To the beautiful people, stay beautiful," Jasso said as the band wound down, as if. "To the ugly people, stick with us." It was the best invitation of the week.

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